Despite speaking disparate tongues, food bridges different generations and brings this family together.
“Where did she put it?” my grandmother asked in Sindhi, as she rummaged through the freezer.
“Put what?” I asked my grandmother in English, watching her with curious eyes.
“Methi, methi,” she replied.
“Methi?” I asked, perplexed. “What’s methi?”
While I’ve heard of this spice, I couldn’t cross-reference its name in Sindhi with its English name, and hence, picture how it looked like.
“Biji, biji,” she said, using the Malay term for seeds as she continued rummaging through the freezer.
Methi? Seeds? I thought to myself, puzzled, wondering how I could avert this potential crisis in the kitchen.
Alas, too late. My grandmother sighed dramatically before announcing to no one in particular, her voice slightly muffled by the still-open freezer door: “I don’t know where Shanta put.”
Turning to Google for explanation, I soon found my answer: fenugreek! I tapped on “Images” and showed the first picture of the spice in all its brown, grainy glory to my grandmother: “This one, Nani (grandmother)?”
“Hanh (Yes),” she said, squinting at the phone. “I don’t know where Shanta put.”
Surely my aunt hadn’t misplaced the spices, I thought to myself as I rifled through the packets of spices placed side by side in the freezer door cabinet.
Success! I extracted the packet and handed it to my grandmother.
“Thank you, beta (dear),” she said, giving me a toothy grin, before proceeding to prepare the rest of the spices for the dhal.
As a Chindian of mixed Teochew-Sindhi heritage, communicating with my grandparents has always been an issue for me, but we’ve managed by using sentences stitched together from a mish-mash of various languages.
My Chinese grandparents, when they were alive, only spoke Teochew and Malay; my Indian grandfather was fluent in English, but passed on too early for me to have any meaningful communication with him.
My Indian grandmother, who speaks Sindhi fluently, along with a smattering of English and Malay, is my sole surviving grandparent, and the only link to a past and a culture I have yet to fully explore.
Born in 1929 in the Sindhi province of what is now Pakistan, my grandmother has lived through many experiences, chief of which was the partition of India in 1947. That was when British India was carved into two territories for the Hindu and Muslim segments of its population. As a result, one of the largest human displacements in history took place, with Hindus and Muslims settling in regions containing a majority of people of the same faith.
This was the beginning of the Sindhi diaspora, where Sindhis like my grandmother migrated from place to place, looking for a home they could call their own. My grandparents moved to India, before finally settling in Singapore, bringing with them their language, traditions and food.
I’d always taken Nani’s culinary proficiency and expertise in the kitchen for granted. So it came as a surprise when Nani revealed to me that she only learnt how to cook at the then-ripe old age of 18, right after she married Baba (grandfather).
“I was never interested in cooking,” says Nani in Sindhi. “I found my mother’s food unappetising. Besides, she always took such a long time to cook.”
Nani only started to pay more attention to culinary matters when she observed her Ammi (mother-in-law) in the kitchen.
“Ammi cooked well – it was probably why I became more fascinated with food.”
“I’d help Ammi in the kitchen by preparing the ingredients: chopping chilli, tomatoes, onions and the like. Then I’d watch Ammi as she cooked, asking questions along the way.”
Before long, Nani eventually graduated from kitchen hand to donning the chef’s apron, but not without some goading from her Ammi.
Today, Nani is making moong ki dhal, a yellow stew made from mung beans with their green outer coats removed. She once had to carry out all the tasks associated with food preparation herself, but now Nani has outsourced the work of chopping the vegetables to her domestic helper.
When I arrived, the mung beans were already bubbling away in a steel pot on the stove, while Ros, the domestic worker, was cutting the coriander leaves. Meanwhile, my grandmother was busy looking for the fenugreek seeds that I duly helped locate.
When she is done making sure she has all the spices, she starts stirring the dhal with a mendhiro, a wooden beater that has served as a hand-blender from pre-electrical times. After pureeing the dhal to a fine paste, Nani begins preparing the tarka, the temper, the garnish or the finishing touch – depending on the source you consult – to an Indian stew.
First, heat up the oil till it sizzles. Then garlic, ginger, jeera (cumin)… Nani rattles off the different ingredients to me as she flings or scoops them into the pot in turn, depending on the level of doneness of the ingredient added before it. Finally, the tarka is ready. Nani picks up the stir-fry pan and pours its bubbling contents into the dhal.
Laremy Nani. Do you like cooking?
Nani Whether or not I like to cook, I had to cook.
Nani Baba would tell me what to cook; Ammi would tell me what she wanted to eat. There were the children as well. I had to cook for them.
Laremy How do you know what to cook?
Nani [brows furrowed] Huh? What are you asking?
Me Where do you get your recipes from?
Nani From Ammi. I learnt mostly meat dishes: chicken; mutton; fish. But when I first came to Singapore, we stayed at Onan Road. I had a best friend there – Janki Mahbubani. Around four in the afternoon, when we were done with our chores, we’d take turns to visit each other for about an hour. We couldn’t stay too long; our husbands expected dinner to be on the table when they arrived home. We’d chat and exchange recipes. From Janki, I learnt a couple of vegetarian dishes and different styles of cooking them: gobi patata (cauliflower with potatoes); sai bhaji (stewed spinach curry); wangir (brinjal or eggplant); kerela (bittergourd); patata (potatoes); bhindiu patata (lady’s fingers with potato); bhindiu beser (lady’s fingers with onions).
[Silence. LAREMY jots down notes.]
Nani [abruptly] Muke redhan-jo khidab ai (I have a book of recipes).
Laremy Really? Show me, show me.
Nani Tapi saya punya language (But it’s in my language).
[Exit NANI, re-entering with a well-preserved book she purchased in 1960. Its title in the Urdu script: Isteri Sansar, or The World of Women.]
Nani serves the dhal with white rice; a salad of cucumbers, tomatoes and carrots drizzled with lime juice and sprinkled with salt and pepper, and papad (papadum). It is simple fare, cooked by the loving hands of my grandmother. But it is heart-warming and soul-sustaining comfort food. What makes it more special is thinking about how many miles and over how many generations the recipe for dhal has travelled before ending up in my belly.
We sit down and begin consuming the meal in silence, for all there is to be said has been laid on the table. Besides, I don’t know the Sindhi for “bursting with flavour”, or “mouth-gasms”, that the food is giving me (Nani would probably not know anyway).
As I chow down my second helping, Nani pauses with all the gravity a matriarch her age will muster and asks, “Nice, no?”
“Of course!” I reply, smiling.
“Any time lu want, lu call, lu come over, I cook. OK?” she says.
I laughed and made a mental note to myself: learn how to say “I love you” in Sindhi.
The recipe for Sindhi-style moong ki dhal
1 cup moong dhal (mung beans)
1 medium-sized tomato
1 green chilli
1 red chilli
1½ cloves of garlic
1 handful coriander (cilantro) leaves
7-8 curry leaves
1 handful mint leaves
¼ cup oil
1 teaspoon jeera (cumin)
2 teaspoons salt (or to taste)
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon methi (fenugreek)
- Wash the mung beans and boil them in a pot until soft. Use an electric or wooden hand-blender to blend to a paste.
- To make the tarka:
- In a stir-fry pan, add oil and heat till sizzling.
- Add ginger, garlic and cumin. Fry till slightly brown.
- Add onions and stir.
- Add curry leaves, red chilli and green chilli. Stir.
- Add salt. Stir.
- Add turmeric. Stir.
- Add methi seeds. Stir.
- Add tomato. Stir.
- Add mint leaves and coriander leaves. Stir.
- When the tarka is cooked, pour into mung beans paste. Stir.
- Serve, garnished with coriander leaves (if preferred) and with a side of rice and salad.
Words and images by Laremy Lee.
Published by the Singapore Memory Project in association with Studio Wong Huzir.